On April 9, I posted an article, "My Year Off Sugar," which listed the many benefits I got from 12 months of sugar abstinence. The posting prompted wonderful, and sometimes frustrated, responses from Huffington Post readers -- both on the site and to me personally. The most edgy among them noted that I made sugar abstinence look too easy and asked how I "really, really, really did it." Fair enough. This is how I really went off sugar. And be prepared! This involves changing behaviors that, I think, actually changed some of my brain's deepest neural pathways. I believe you can do it too!
A quick review: In April of 2011, a friend sent me Gary Taubes' New York Times article, "Is Sugar Toxic?" At the time, I was in an open frame of mind that allowed me to be receptive to new data, which really just meant that I didn't immediately hit the "diet story delete" button. In the short term, I wished I had, because the article induced a fearful epiphany. I hadn't been previously aware of the metabolic disturbances and other frightening impacts of sugar on my body. Thus, fear became the spark that ignited a major life change, which I'm enjoying to this day.
Like most people, I don't enjoy fear. And, fortunately, I have an emotional toolkit to activate when I'm fearful. As luck would have it, I'm a professional happiness expert -- a researcher, lecturer, and consultant on happiness, and, with my partner, Greg Hicks, have written about it for years. When I'm feeling less than cheerful or am in a crisis, I've learned to invoke our happiness model for my own use. Even though it may seem unrelated to the world of dieting, a number of elements in the model quickly worked wonders for changing my eating behavior. Frankly, I was thrilled that my own professional "material" worked so well on my personal self.
So, I was fearful and unhappy about my eating patterns. How could I get happy? For starters, years of research tells me that going straight to "intentionality" is the best first step to happiness. And, I was right. Intention turned out to be the springboard for losing 25 pounds, sleeping through the night, and a host of other physical changes resulting from not ingesting sugar.
What does "intention" mean, and how does it relate to sugar consumption? What we learned from extremely happy people is that they actively choose how they're going to react to situations. They choose what attitude they're going to have and how they're going to behave. Their intentions are the internal message they're giving themselves about who they're going to be. These are very different from goals, which are outcomes -- the final achievements that can be calibrated, measured and celebrated. For example, a measureable and specific diet goal would be, "I'm going to lose 25 pounds in the next six months." In the case of my own impending sugar abstinence, I crafted these intentions: "I'm going to be the kind of person who takes care of himself by not eating sugar." "I intend to be mindful of what I shove into my mouth." "I'm going to identify all the sources of sugar I ingest daily." My new intentions animated my first hour, then first day, then first year off sugar.
There is an orthodoxy in our American diet world that insists we need goals. I think this goal-centricity comes from our business traditions, or, perhaps, from our deeply ingrained Protestant work ethic. But while some people seem to need goals, that was very much not the case with me. My intentions worked just fine. They were more like having an internal picture of how I wanted to be as an "eater," how I wanted to feel as I put on my clothes in the morning, and, ultimately, how I saw myself as being healthy over time. These are general portraits -- not specific, measureable goals -- that coalesced into a beautiful image of my future self. Like the soft forms in an impressionist painting, they were inexact -- not particularly sharp-focused, but very colorful!
In those first minutes and hours off sugar, every time I felt the urge to eat sweets, and every time I found myself reflexively reaching for the spoon to add sugar to my coffee, or heading for the cupboard to my chocolate stash, or scanning the dessert menu at my favorite hang-out, I invoked my intentions. By far, the intention that was the most fun, and probably the most helpful, hit me at a great restaurant in Berkeley, the day after my sugar-free life began. Confronted by a friend's fabulous-looking custard éclair, I set the intention of enjoying dessert BUT without eating it. It was a bolt of inspiration when I suddenly realized I could intend to enjoy that éclair's design, color, texture, and heavenly chocolate perfume, without stuffing it into my mouth. I had my cake, but didn't have to eat it, too.
Staying aware of what I was doing was the key. In fact, failure to be conscious would have meant a failure of my own intelligence. It seemed to work. In the early weeks, I was beginning to re-program my brain. All the deeply-cut neural pathways formed by a lifetime of habitual sugar-scarfing were being sculpted and superseded by new neural pathways -- forged by conscious intentions to do otherwise.
I can't say that Day 1 or Day 2 were fun, but it was a refreshing time for me. I had a feeling of vitality. I was doing something good for myself. And, the best part was that my fearfulness began to fade. I was eating properly. I began to consider that, maybe, the terrible things in Gary Taubes' article wouldn't happen to me. Perhaps a "fatty liver" wasn't my fate. Maybe I wasn't feeding cancer cells, or throwing off my entire metabolic process.
Beyond "intentionality," some other pieces of the happiness model also informed my first few days of dietary change:
- Accountability was in full force, and has been for the past year. We all know that the path to hell is paved with good intentions. Unless we're accountable to those intentions, they're a waste of time. Every time a well-meaning friend offers a taste of some terrific dessert -- flan, for example -- I invoke my intentions to do what's good for me. I'll look at the flan, inhale its aroma, remember what it used to taste like, let it enrich my aesthetic soul, and then move on.
- Flexibility (what we call "options" in the happiness model) played a role. I had to open up to the idea that learning new ways to eat was good for me, even in the face of the paradoxical thought that I needed to not be open to sugar. My thinking was this: I don't consume a bunch of stuff that's bad for me already. I don't smoke, drink (except a very occasional glass of wine), eat fast food or anything sheathed in plastic wrap with a stamped expiration date. I also don't eat rat poison. So why not do something new by adding an entry to my "No Eat List"? Adios, sugar!
- Truthfulness is another of those happiness traits that came into play. The happiest people tell the truth, and I needed to tell myself the truth. Actually, Gary Taubes' article told me the truth, and I had to re-tell it to myself. I needed to be honest with myself about how much sugar was sneaking into my diet -- in coffee, in desserts, in packaged cereals, in bottled sauces and jams, in dried fruits. I also became brutally honest with myself about my body, and how much I wanted it to stick around for the future.
- Giving was another piece that loomed large. I needed to give myself wellbeing. And by so doing, I was giving the gift of a healthier self to my children, lover, friends and colleagues.
What makes all of this possible is that we're the beneficiaries of recent discoveries, not just in the world of diet, but in medical science in general. I thank medical researchers for the concept of neuroplasticity. The fact that I can change my own brain with behavior and attitude is just incredible. It's one of the most optimistic and enjoyable pieces of information that's come out of the medical community in years.
I've come a long way in 12 months. A few years ago, I walked into a hotel breakfast room in Kadoka, S.D., and was thrilled by an impressive tower of donuts that was maybe three feet high. I remember thinking to myself that, given enough time, I could eat the whole, beautiful, gooey stack -- starting with the glazed jelly donuts. That memory makes me laugh, but the guy who would have gorged himself simply doesn't exist any more. I have changed. I'm a new person with new neural pathways, an improved body, no leg cramps in over a year, and vastly improved sleep patterns. Thank you, neuroplasticity. It's something we've all got.
And, that's how I really, really, really went off sugar.
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